For all the years that I had been reading Goodnight Moon to some child or another, I had been picturing its author as a plump, maternal presence, someone like the quiet old lady in the rocking chair whispering, “Hush,” and so I was surprised to see, in a bored, casual dip into Google, the blonde, green-eyed, movie-starish vixen, and attendant accounts of her lesbian lover, her many male lovers, her failure to settle down, and tragic early death.
Margaret Wise Brown, or “Brownie” as her friends called her, did not harbor sentimental notions and was not overly devoted to bunnies and chubby toddlers. In a Life profile the reporter expressed surprise that the tender creator of so many rabbit-themed books would enjoy hunting and shooting rabbits, and Margaret replied: “Well, I don’t especially like children, either. At least not as a group. I won’t let anybody get away with anything just because he is little.”
One of Margaret Wise Brown’s offhand descriptions of childhood makes me think that she is nearer to childhood than the rest of us, inside it in a way that most of us can’t quite imagine or get to: She talks about the “painful shy animal dignity with which a child stretches to conform to a strange, adult social politeness.” Could there be a better, more intimate expression of that awkward childhood relation to the adult world?
Also preternaturally incisive about that stage of life is her statement about the purpose of kids’ books: “to jog him with the unexpected and comfort him with the familiar.” Putting both the jogging and the comforting together is too resplendent an insight for an expert on childhood and seems to belong instead to a denizen of it.
Is it possible that the most inspired children’s book writers never grow up? By that I don’t mean that they understand or have special affection or affinity toward children, but that they don’t understand adulthood, and I mean that in the best possible sense. It may be that they haven’t moved responsibly out of childhood the way most of us have, into busy, functional, settled adult life.
Margaret Wise Brown’s life was full of what her admirers like to call whimsy and other people might call childlike behavior. She spent her first royalty check on an entire flower cart full of flowers. At her house in Maine, which she called “The Only House,” she had an outdoor boudoir with a table and nightstand and a mirror nailed to a tree, along with an outside well that held butter and eggs, and wine bottles kept cold in a stream; one could easily imagine a little fur family living in “The Only House,” but it was just her friends, associates, editors, and lovers passing through. She was once chastised by a hotel owner in Paris because she had brought giant orange trees and live birds into her room. The orange trees might have been OK, the owner thought, but the live birds were a little de trop.
It seems also that she could be annoying the way only an energetic 7-year-old could be: A friend asks her the time, and she says, “What time would you like it to be?” She had a group called the Bird Brain Society, in which the members could declare any day Christmas and the rest would come over and celebrate it. She was, in other words, one of those people whose magnetism owes something to the fact that the line between play and life was never entirely clear to her.
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